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Psychometry (literally, soul measuring) is an alleged psychic power that enables one to divine facts by handling objects. Commonly, the psychic handles some jewelry or clothing, claims to be able to see or feel the object's aura, and begins shotgunning. Many psychic detectives claim to have psychometric powers. Skeptics explain this "power" as a matter of magical thinking, cold reading, subjective validation, and selective thinking.
The powerful influence of the psychometrist is illustrated by the following e-mail I received from a man who wanted me to know that psychic forces are real:
I know ESP is real. I used to be skeptical about it but saw first-hand evidence at Simon Fraser University with a psychic the professor brought into the classroom. I even did a test in front of the whole class on her. What she told me she could not have known, as it was a boating accident event that no one there knew about, except me.
She did something called psychometry where she held on to students metal objects such as rings, watches, keys. There is something strange about metal; it seems to have the ability to hold mental energies which help the psychic tune in.
The universe is far stranger than you think it is. The psychic also warned me about a guy I used to scuba dive with. She said he was surrounded by guns and that his life was in danger. Six months later he shot himself in the head and died with one of his many guns after his girlfriend left him for a co-worker.
The psychic, Maureen McGuire, later told me that she was in contact with him in the afterlife and that he did not mean to do it; he was drinking and it was an accident.
I think it is important to keep an open mind about how the universe works, with quantum physics weirdness like Bell's theorem, time flowing backwards, multiple dimensions, etc. It is very limiting to cling onto the Newtonian mechanical model of the world. Einstein himself said the field is the only reality now; the idea of hard bits of matter is long dead.
I believe Dean Radin, Edgar Mitchell, Robert Jahn, Helmut Schmitt, etc. are on the right track. Albert Einstein wrote the forward to the book Mental Radio (pro-ESP book written in the 1930's) in which he said the integrity of the author Upton Sinclair was beyond question.
To my eyes the skeptical community has become the new church, refusing to look through the telescope, defending the non-existent and dead material paradigm. The universe is a much more interesting place with ESP than the old world of dumb pieces of matter.
I should note that Russ's experience took place 25 years ago (scroll to "Russ said" and read his third comment). His experiences and beliefs may have affected his memory of the events. The reliability of that memory as to details may reasonably be questioned. Also, the course was taught by Robert Harper, a psi enthusiast who may not have been the most unbiased of teachers.
Of course I wasn't there when the psychometric demonstration by Maureen McGuire took place, so I would be guessing should I try to reconstruct the scene to explain how Russ himself may have supplied the psychic with the details of the reading. It is common for the psychic to say she senses something like an accident and the client supplies the boating part of the reading. Later, the client remembers the psychic telling him about his boating accident when, in fact, she did no such thing. It is also common for the client not to wonder why the psychic didn't give a specific warning about the impending "accidental suicide." Be that as it may, there are still some interesting facts about psychometry that Russ and others might find interesting. (For more details from Russ and my comments on them see reader comments.)
Joseph Rhodes (or Rodes) Buchanan (1814-1899) gave us the term 'psychometry' as referring to the idea that an individual's personal influence somehow clings to an object in perpetuity once it has come in contact with that individual. The logical mind might wonder how the psychic separates out the various personal influences that must permeate all objects under such a magical view of reality. (A similar question arises when considering the alleged notion of homeopaths that water has a memory of the curative qualities of the substance it was once in contact with while magically losing all memory of the millions of other contaminants it inevitably has also been affected by over the millennia.) The magical thinker is not troubled by such trivia, as Buchanan quickly discovered. In 1893 he published the result of his many years of "investigation" of the subject: Manual of Psychometry: The Dawn of a New Civilization.
Buchanan and his wife practiced the art of psychometric readings for some 50 years, profiting handsomely from it. Both mesmerism and spiritualism were popular adjuncts at the time, though Buchanan claims to have gotten his scientific impetus from phrenology. As with many such characters, it is difficult to determine whether the art was pure exploitation of human gullibility, self-delusion, or a mixture of the two. Buchanan referred to himself as "Dr." Buchanan and he taught at some offbeat medical schools of the day, but his exact training remains a mystery. It is certain, however, that he called psychometry a "science." By any common understanding of the term, it isn't a science; thus, we are justified in calling it a pseudoscience. Even so, Buchanan's trail is worth examining. The following account is based on chapter XXIV of Jastrow's Error and Eccentricity in Human Belief.
Buchanan claimed that in 1842 he discovered that by placing an object on the forehead of a "sensitive," the sensitive could reconstruct a scene or a personality. He didn't announce his grand discovery until 1849, however. For the rest of the century, he and his wife expanded on the idea that objects placed on the forehead could produce impressions of someone who had been in contact with the object.
"Dr." Buchanan added some medical-sounding jargon to explain the phenomena in more convincing terminology. A "person of acute sensibility" or of "a nervo-sanguineous temperament" (such as Mrs. Buchanan) who had a piece of metal placed on her forehead would taste something sweet or salty or acidic by a "peculiar influence" that passed up her arm to the head. Buchanan could amplify the experience by placing his fingers on the metal. How? By the "passage of nervous influence, or nervaura, from my own constitution through the substance." Indeed. Soon, he had a group of men from the Eclectic Medical Institute of Cincinnati swearing that they were sensing effects from drugs wrapped in paper that they held in their hands.
Next, Buchanan discovered that "an autograph placed on the forehead of a sensitive subject would reveal the entire appearance, life history, and character traits of the writer." Soon, he realized that anyone could do it, sensitive or not (as long as one had a vivid imagination to go along with one's credulousness). A popular parlor game ensued: doing readings from the autographs of famous people like George Washington, Stonewall Jackson, Daniel Webster, or John Adams. Occasionally, the experience backfired, but that never deters the true believer. When two letters, one from Charles Dickens and the other from an unknown writer were misinterpreted by the psychometrist, it was explained away by the fact that the letters psychometrically influenced each other! (This event is reminiscent of the explanation given by the psychic who was sure his dowsing rods could tell which jar of water had been charged with psychic energy: he couldn't do it because the energized water jugs had influenced the other jugs so that now all were energized!)
Buchanan was an equal opportunity practitioner. He found no conflict when a psychometrist felt something in her Firmness area (as denoted by phrenology) from a letter of Stonewall Jackson's pressed to her forehead. The magic of homeopathy could be explained by psychometry, as could contagious diseases. Needless to say, Buchanan favored spiritualism and his ideas found favor with spiritualists.
His ideas also found favor with scientists governed by a spiritual thirst. Buchanan wrote that psychic faculties would eventually be used in all the sciences: medicine, physiology, history, paleontology, philosophy, anthropology, geology, astronomy, theology, you name it. Of course, he was right. We have seen men and women from all walks of life apply psychic powers and notions to their disciplines, all with equal success.
Buchanan's most famous 19th century disciple was geologist William Denton. Denton's sister (Anna Denton Cridge) used psychometry to eliminate the need for field work. She simply held a specimen to her forehead and its life history passed before her eyes:
From a fragment of lava from Kilauea, Hawaii (the sensitive had no idea of the origin and nature), the following picture was sensed: "I see the ocean and ships are sailing on it. This must be an island, for water is all around. Now I am turned from where I saw the vessels, and am looking at something most terrific. It seems as if an ocean of fire were pouring over a precipice, and boiling as it pours. The sight permeates my whole being, and inspires me with terror. I see it flow into the ocean and the water boils intensely."
A pebble of a limestone, with glacial scratches on its surface, was given to Cridge. She said: "I feel as if I were below an immense body of water—so deep that I cannot see down through it, and yet it seems that I could see upward through it for miles. Now I am going, going, and there is something above and around me. It must be ice; I am frozen in it. The motion of the mass I am in is not uniform; it pitches forward then halts and pitches again, then goes grinding, pressing and rushing along—a mountain mass.*
In 1863 Denton published The Soul of Things, in which he explains how geology will be done in the future with this new science. "Yet strangely enough," notes Joseph Jastrow, "the stubborn and conservative United States government still maintains an expensive Geological Survey, and ignores the aid of psychometry!"
In 1905 Emma Bullene published Psychic History of the Cliff Dwellers, demonstrating the new science as applied to anthropology and archaeology. No need for extensive laboratory examinations when placing the horn of a chamois on one's forehead will do the job much faster as just as efficiently.
No need for law courts. Detectives and witnesses are unnecessary. I wonder if Russ would agree to forego trial by jury for trial by psychometrist should he ever be charged with a serious crime.
The idea that the past is entombed in the present is an ancient and recurring idea. We've seen it again recently with Rupert Sheldrake's notion of morphic resonance and Gary Schwartz's idea of info-energy systemic resonance or systemic memory. The idea lives on in the work of Daryl Bem on precognition, the idea that time is an illusion and the future causes the present, so the past was brought about by the future. Thus, the present moment is pregnant with everything that ever was and ever will be.
This is mysticism pure and simple. There is nothing magical about the idea, as far as I can see, nor is there anything mysterious about it. Contrary to Russ, I believe the universe is much more interesting when we investigate it using real science, rather than the imaginary tools of the psychometrist.
On the other hand, as James Randi notes:
Many persons have had the experience of returning to a childhood location and feeling the “chill” of returning memories from long ago. Standing before an ancient monument can bring on strange feelings that seem to be the result of the edifice itself, and not merely of an awareness of the history and the personalities involved with that monument. It would be difficult to walk through Westminster Abbey and fail to be stirred by the memories thus invoked of famous persons.
This feeling of being connected to persons and events of the past is one I've experienced many times at places such as Newgrange, Westminster Abbey, Isaac Newton's reconstructed study at Babson College, the Basilica of Santa Croce, the grounds at Christ Church, Oxford, where John Locke once walked. The feeling can't be denied, but the idea that the feeling is generated by being in contact with some sort of paranormal or supernatural energy left there by those who came before is one a rational person sets aside in more reflective moments.
On the other hand, even though it is irrational to believe, for example, that the sweater of a mass murderer is contaminated with some sort of evil essence or residue that transferred to the piece of clothing when worn by the killer, it is probably more natural to be superstitious about the sweater than to be indifferent to it. Skepticism about the paranormal, including beliefs that some sort of transference of essence or memory occurs when an item has been in contact with a person, may be unnatural. It does seem to go against the grain of our evolutionary history and our early childhood experiences. Psychologist Bruce Hood makes a strong case for the notion that belief in the paranormal is more natural than skepticism. I wrote in my review of Hood's SuperSense: Why We Believe the Unbelievable:
We may have a natural tendency to interpret experience in supernatural terms, but the specific nature of our deities isn't something we're born with. Likewise, we may have a natural tendency to see the world as full of substances with essences and accidental properties, but that doesn't mean that there really are essences or substances that exist independently of our experience. Our language with its subjects and predicates may reflect our natural way of looking at the world, but our brains tell us that the world does not have to conform to the way we instinctively perceive it....
It is true that many children and many adults accept supernatural and paranormal beliefs until they are disproved beyond a reasonable doubt. It's true that many adults will never yield their beliefs in superstitions, no matter what the evidence is. It is also true that many adults won't accept any claim until it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt....It may be true that the brain naturally imbues certain persons, places, and things with significance. But the brain is also capable of perceiving that stones or mountains or sets of beads are sacred only because some people believe they are. If one person is capable of recognizing that a rabbit's foot cannot be imbued with luck-producing qualities, then almost everyone should be capable of overcoming the natural tendency to attribute to non-magical objects magical qualities. One obvious reason not everybody is still stuck in a world completely dominated by superstition is learning. There are limits, of course, to what we can learn, and knowing something isn't always sufficient to alter erroneous beliefs or self-destructive behaviors. And certainly many of our irrational and false beliefs are comforting and advantageous. (As Hood notes, superstitious beliefs and practices reduce stress caused by uncertainty.) Weeding out the ones that are harmful from those that are benign is not always easy, but it does us little benefit as a species to recognize that a sense of the sacred and profane will always be with us and yet do nothing to remove the taboos and superstitions that are most harmful.
Psychology and the human race is better off trying to understand psychometry as the belief of a mind gone wrong rather than of a mind that has broken through the veil of illusion to the reality where all is one and one is all. The key concepts one must grasp to understand psychometry are magical thinking, credulity, imagination, desire, subjective validation, cold reading, selective thinking, confirmation bias, and the like. The feeling that some get when obtaining a famous person's autograph should be recognized for what it is: a "false sense of intimacy" (in the words of basketball great Bill Russell, known for not signing autographs). That false sense of intimacy that comes to some people when they touch another's keys or a missing person's stocking should be recognized for what it is: either pure exploitation of human gullibility, self-delusion, or a mixture of the two.
By the by, Buchanan also solved the mind-body dualism problem with his discovery of sarcognomy.
See also What if Dean Radin is right? by Robert Todd Carroll
books and articles
Hood, Bruce. 2009. SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. HarperCollins. See my review of this book here.
Last updated 18-Dec-2014